Music worked for my loved one with Alzheimer's..

May 29, 2023
3 minute read
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When it comes to Alzheimer’s, unfortunately there isn’t one magic pill that alleviates the negative symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s without side effects. In fact, choosing to medicate someone can be a brutal double-edged sword. Take one kind of antipsychotic and experience a decrease in cognition, don’t take the drug and risk increased agitation (which can also speed up cognitive decline). For some, it may seem like there’s no winning. But what if there was a third option?

Music therapy has proven effective at mitigating negative symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s such as anxiety and agitation. Better still, there isn’t any sort of tradeoff - music comes with no negative side effects.

Below are two stories shared with LUCID from caregivers to people living with dementia, and how they use music as a tool to manage the symptoms of anxiety and agitation as well as reconnect with their loved ones.

Brenda’s Story

At 60 years old my mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. A lot of people don’t realize that Parkinson’s disease can lead to memory loss and dementia.

In the early days of my mother’s illness, she and my father wanted to prioritize keeping her mobile. They also wanted to ensure that she was well enough to stay at home and avoid long term care. So, she began taking a few different kinds of drugs that would help her maintain her ability to walk and move fluidly. The downside to these drugs my parents would later learn, was that they hastened memory loss.

Both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are progressive diseases. This means that the conditions only worsen over time. Over the years as my mom continued to decline, not only was her mobility trending downwards, so too was her memory and cognition. As these two things worsened, she became more and more difficult to care for.

The main issue we faced as the dementia became increasingly problematic was that she was getting more agitated and aggressive in the evenings. This period of increased agitation, irritability and confusion (also known as sundowning) made caring for my mom incredibly challenging – both physically and emotionally.

It’s hard on your spirit to watch your parent lose their vitality. Couple that with the challenges of caregiving and you’ve got a recipe for stress and upset. Every day it felt like I was watching as my mom got worse. I was desperate for some kind of a solution.

Then, by some happy miracle, my parents discovered a gospel program that aired on the radio in the evenings. The change in my mother was almost immediate. She was happy – sitting in her chair, nodding along to the music as it played, even singing!

Music had always played a role in my mom’s life – she had been active in her church’s choir for years – up until it was no longer possible for her to stand comfortably in the risers. I’d never really thought about how she might respond to music, but as soon as my dad and I realized the profound impact it had on her spirit, we were playing music all day. We began setting the TV to the music channels during as much of the day as possible and listening to the gospel music program in the evenings.

Finally, we had discovered something that helped us mellow my mother out without needing to give her more pills with who knows what kinds of side effects. We would listen to the radio and get her in a good mood and then we could prepare her for bed. It sounds so simple, but if you’ve been in the position of caring for a sick and unreasonable loved one, you’ll quickly recognize how great of a weight music had managed to lift from mine and my father’s shoulders.

Beyond just how it made caring for her easier, music also brought a light back to my mom’s eyes that had dimmed. She had life in her still. Whenever we played Alan Jackson’s How Great Thou Are it brought about this big emotional response in my mom. It was like getting her back for a few minutes.

When I first heard about LUCID, I didn’t need to hear the pitch or the science behind how music could help people with dementia. I had seen it with my own eyes. It’s so effective. You see it instantly.

Kendall’s Story

When my dad was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s it rocked my family’s world. He wasn’t even 50 years old and all of a sudden we were thinking about moving to an area that was closer to long term care homes.

Music had always been a major connector for my dad and I.

When my family first discovered iTunes, I remember my dad sitting in front of the computer for hours, scrolling through the library and playing sample clips.

“This is my favourite Fleetwood Mac song,” I remember him telling me, thumbing the red iPod in his hand. “I wanted to name you Sara for a while actually.”  

When my dad first got sick and was still mobile and manageable, I’d often take him out with me as I ran my errands, just so that he could feel like he was getting out of the house and was still a part of the world. I’d crank up the volume and we’d drive around town with the music blasting. “You know Kendall, you’ve got great taste in music,” he’d tell me.

When we moved my dad into long term care, he declined at an absolutely jaw-dropping rate. He quickly became quiet, and conversation was not feasible. He couldn’t engage, let alone comprehend what we were talking about. So, one day on yet another visit where I sat on a chair and he on his bed with nothing to say, I decided to play him some music.

Almost as soon as I hit play on his all time favourite song, Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat, he lit up. He started to waggle his finger and sway to the tinkling of the piano keys. I hadn’t seen him so animated in ages! “Oh this!” he said excitedly, “I love this!”

So, I decided to put together a playlist of all of his favourite songs, all of the music I remembered listening to with him, music that played between periods of my brother’s hockey games, his favourite Christmas carols, my parents first dance song from their wedding.

Music gave my family a means of connecting with my dad. A way to share a moment with him. A chance to make eye contact and be present again.

It was a little bit of joy that we could offer him – and when you’re in the trenches of this disease, having those moments of happiness can feel like the only thing that has the power to propel you forward.

My dad had felt like he was so far away from us for so long. Playing him music became a way for us to get him back for a few minutes.

One day, my dad had a violent outburst at the home. He was so upset and so unhinged that he had to be sedated and taken to the hospital. It was traumatic for everyone. Recently, as I was visiting, my dad began to grow agitated once again and I was worried if we weren’t able to subdue him that he’d be brought to the hospital again. So, I frantically hit play on his favourite song and it was like flicking a switch. He was instantly more relaxed and amicable. Music leveled him out.

It’s incredible the power that music has. I have seen it time and again with my dad and I cannot speak highly enough about the use of it as a means of managing agitation.

If you are living with mild to moderate dementia or MCI, or are a care partner to someone, you may be able to participate in LUCID's clinical trial! Sign up here.